By Nathan Smith
Here in East York Canada Day celebrations began in the morning with a parade. I pulled my daughter in her wagon to the starting point a few blocks from our house. As we hurried to meet neighbours I reflected on the nature of the event organizing itself just beyond a set of traffic lights ahead.
Historians of Canada are apt to do this kind of reflecting, the kind Tom Peace did in Quebec City recently. The fact that I was reading Ian McKay’s and Jamie Swift’s new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety made me additionally sensitive to “myth-symbols” and constructions of Canadian national identity. Was a version of Canada as a Warrior Nation awaiting us? We were almost there.
In a sense it was. Members of local Legion branches were near the head of the parade and further back were a dozen or so young cadets. There was also a marching band whose music, uniforms and orderliness evoked military traditions. The police on hand to clear traffic and wave “hello” to onlookers wore uniforms, carried weapons and were associated with martial values and traditions. The basic format of the event that was about to get underway was also connected with military traditions of parading, as well as with forms of public display that must be quite ancient.
So there were elements of militarism on display, but nothing about the parade suggested a rebranding of Canada along the lines suggested by McKay and Swift. Much smaller than it once was, the parade was not a site for the federal government’s promotion of warrior nationalism, unlike the official celebration of the national holiday in Ottawa. As I read later, the government’s program for Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill used dramatic and musical performances to highlight the relevance of the War of 1812. And Prime Minister Harper’s comments about recognizing the war offered a splendid example of warrior nationalism (and historical inaccuracy). According to the CBC, our Prime Minister cast the war as a “fight for Canada” that united “English, French, Aboriginal” and, in case that left anyone out, “people of all backgrounds”. In fighting for this Canada, explained Harper, “they created a common sense of nationality based on diversity and they laid the basis for the parliamentary federation of freedom, democracy and justice that is our inheritance.”
In contrast to the event organized on Canada’s national front lawn, the parade that was now starting on its way was low-key and modest. From our perspective it was short-lived too. It did not take long to watch the members of a rotary club pass us, a couple of roller-skaters eager to give out the few little flags they had, boys and girls from the local baseball association, and a car covered in a quilt, whose meaning was not at all obvious. As the last of the parade passed it occurred to me there might be a quilting society in the area. Reflecting on the smallness of the affair I couldn’t help compare it with the spectacle of the Pride Parade that would start downtown that afternoon, and I thought of Caribana, another annual event that was similarly celebratory and probably even bigger. But, I reminded myself, we had just seen a parade that celebrated identity. A major difference was that the state was central to the “myth-symbols” at work here and these were connected with military service and sacrifice.
It was time to go to the nearby park, where parade walkers had assembled and a splash-pad and playground beckoned. We said good-bye to the neighbour we met and turned towards another reminder of war and nation, Dieppe Park. Named after a failed attack on a French town on the English Channel in 1942 that was one of the worst disasters in Canadian military history, the park is one example of a legacy of war-naming in East York. I’ve come across many others in this area of Toronto, such as a Memorial Stadium and a Memorial Arena, and a number of street names, including Aerodrome Crescent, which recalls an airfield established in 1917. The most recent example is the Route of Heroes, the name given in 2010 to a stretch of the nearby Don Valley Parkway and a series of downtown streets to which it connects. This route is the Toronto extension of the Highway of Heroes that the bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan have travelled from Trenton, Ontario on their way to a coroner’s office before being claimed by their families.
Using these roadways to honour fallen heroes seems in-line with the re-branding of Canada that inspired McKay and Swift to embark on their book project. More certainly, these acts of naming testify to the continued relevance of a tradition of war remembrance inaugurated by the collective response to mass death in the First World War. It is no surprise that the signs for the Highway of Heroes and the Route of Heroes display the poppy, an inheritance from First World War symbolism.
This tradition of commemoration now exists in a society that has been powerfully shaped by war but that has relatively little direct experience of war. Whereas in decades past veterans filled the ranks of East York’s Dominion Day and Canada Day parades, only a few now march on July First. I doubt that many of the people in Dieppe Park today have the kind of complicated, personal understanding of war and its legacies in family and community life that earlier generations did. Our interaction with the history of war is much more attenuated. This makes it it all the more important for historians to consider the significance of war for Canadian history, and engage their audiences with its relevance, as McKay and Swift are attempting to do in their book and in interviews.
I consider this as we return home. We live on a street that I think is named after a First World War Italian general and nationalist leader. I have been meaning to go to the archives to find out if I’m right. It’s time that I did.
Nathan Smith completed his Ph.D. thesis, ‘Comrades and Citizens: Great War Veterans in Toronto, 1915-1919,’ at the University of Toronto in 2012. He is currently an Adjunct Faculty Member with SUNY Empire State College.